Air pollution in India: a silent killer suffocates Delhi. For millions there is no choice but to breathe it


“I come here and wait. Sometimes people feed me,” Singh said, his voice straining over the sound of rickshaws and steaming cars a few feet away.

But some Delhi residents have become so used to the bad air that it is a part of everyday life – they hardly notice it, they say.

Others say it makes them sick.

Choke on smog

A policeman who directs traffic at one of Delhi’s busy intersections said pollution levels had become “unbearable” this winter.

“I took off my mask because I need to whistle to stop the traffic, but it was horrible,” said the 48-year-old officer, who did not reveal his name as he is not allowed to talk to the media.

Exhaust gases escape from the rows of vehicles around him – he says he’s having a hard time catching his breath.

“My eyes hurt. It’s hard to breathe. It’s not easy,” he said.

Social worker Neelam Joshi, 39, says she feels the pollution every time she leaves home to take the train to work.

“When you leave the house in the morning, it’s the first thing that strikes you,” Joshi said. At the end of the day, she says her body seems to have adjusted, but the next day it all starts again.

“In the last six years that I have lived in Delhi, there has never been any reduction in pollution,” she said. “It only gets higher every year. Every year we reach a different level, and during festivals it gets worse and worse.”

Amanpreet Kaur, 28, a flight attendant from the Rohini area of ​​Delhi, recently flew a flight from the United States and was stunned by the difference in air quality.

“When I landed in India, after my flight from the United States, it was horrible. I keep coughing,” she said.

Kaur says the smog is so bad you can see it at night as a dirty haze around street lamps and car headlights.

“When the sun goes down, all you see is smog, just smog all around,” Kaur said.

“It is very dangerous to live in Delhi.

Smog blankets the Indian government office on November 20, 2021 in New Delhi.

“My right to breathe”

Aditya Dubey, an 18-year-old environmental activist, has spent the past two years lobbying for urgent action on Delhi’s pollution.

Every year the city is plagued by a cloud of freezing smog, but it’s worse in the winter when lower temperatures and a drop in wind speed keep particles in the air for longer.

“Winter has become torture and every day feels like punishment,” Dubey said. “I have a burning sensation in my eyes and they start to water. I feel short of breath.”

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal last month tried to control pollution levels by banning firecrackers for Diwali, the festival of lights, but the celebrations mostly went smoothly.

Diwali smoke was exacerbated by a spike in the burning of crop waste in surrounding farmland.

As of November 5, most sites in Delhi had an AQI above 500, the highest level on the scale.

By then, Dubey had had enough.

The activist filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking for the protection of his “right to breathe”.

On November 15, the court ruled in his favor and ordered the central government to do more.

Subsequently, schools were closed, non-essential traffic was suspended, construction projects were halted, and six of the 11 coal-fired power stations were ordered to close until the end of November.

Construction projects resumed on Monday as Delhi saw marginal improvement in air quality.

But for many, the damage was already done.

Morning mist envelops the skyline on the outskirts of New Delhi, India in October 2020.

The “silent killer”

Delhi is not the only Indian city suffocated by smog.

Last year, nine of the ten most polluted cities in the world were in India, according to the IQAir monitoring network.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution causes an estimated 7 million premature deaths per year worldwide, mainly due to increased mortality from cardiovascular disease, cancer and respiratory infections.
Bad air could reduce the life expectancy of hundreds of millions of Indians by up to nine years, according to a recent study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).

The study also found that each of India’s 1.3 billion people experience average annual pollution levels that exceed guidelines set by the WHO.

In 2019, the central government announced a nationwide campaign to clean the air, with the aim of reducing particulate pollution by up to 30% by 2024. Specific plans have been created for each city; in Delhi, these plans included measures to reduce road traffic, fires and road dust, and to encourage the use of cleaner fuels.

But in recent years India’s pollution problem has worsened, in part because of the country’s dependence on fossil fuels – and in particular on coal.

At the recent COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, India was part of a group of countries that pushed for an 11th hour amendment to the deal to “phase out” coal rather than ” eliminate it ”.
In Delhi, noxious air kills tens of thousands of people every year, according to analysis of IQAir data by Greenpeace.

But despite the deteriorating air quality, some Delhi residents have gotten so used to it that they don’t seem to realize it.

Many roam the streets without face masks and have developed a general complacency with pollution levels.

Omprakash Mali, a 50-year-old gardener, says air pollution does not affect him or his job.

“We work with mud and dust as a gardener, so I don’t feel anything more,” he said. “I think the government’s top priority should always be Covid-19. Pollution happens every year.”

Meanwhile, Shesh Babu, 18, a manual laborer, said he “doesn’t really care” about Delhi’s thick smog. His priority is to earn money.

Dubey, the activist, says air pollution is seen as an “elitist” problem.

“Air pollution is a silent killer,” he said. “There is a lack of awareness. People don’t realize the seriousness of this.”


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